(New York Jewish Week) — “I need two matzah ball soups!” a deli clerk yells into the microphone during the lunch rush at 2nd Ave Deli — which, since 2006, is no longer located on Second Avenue but on East 33rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenue.
While the original deli building is now a bank, the Midtown location boasts the same old-school vibe: The menu is packed with Ashkenazi treats such as knishes, stuffed cabbage and, of course, pastrami; the gregarious waiters are full of personality; the logo’s Hebraic-styled lettering remains unchanged.
But one fundamental part of the restaurant’s DNA didn’t make the move: its founder, Abe Lebewohl. He was robbed and killed on his way to the bank on March 4, 1996, in a crime that transfixed New York City and has yet to be solved.
Back at East 10th Street and Second Avenue, across from where the deli sat for over 50 years, is a triangular, tree-lined plaza named Abe Lebewohl Park. “They called him the mayor of Second Avenue,” Steve Cohen, the longtime manager of the deli, told the New York Jewish Week of his former boss.
The decision to name the park after Lebewohl was a “no-brainer,” as Cohen called it. It was “neighborhood people” who initiated the naming of the plaza, which is located in front of St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery and dates to 1799. As it happens, in 1980, Lebewohl had joined forces with Marilyn Appleberg, who was president of the 10th and Stuyvesant Streets Block Association, in an effort to clean up the plaza and make it more welcoming.
“That was his neighborhood,” Cohen said. “He was ubiquitous and all-encompassing. When you were around him he blanketed you.”
That Lebewohl would make his mark in Manhattan wasn’t preordained. Lebewohl was born in Kulykiv, Ukraine, in 1931. When World War II broke out, his father was sent to Siberia and Abe and his mother went to Kazakhstan. The family ultimately reunited and ended up at a refugee camp in Italy, where Abe’s brother Jack was born. In 1950, when Abe was 19, the Lebewohls emigrated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Eager to help his family, Abe went to work as a soda jerk at a deli in Coney Island.
In 1954, Abe opened 2nd Ave Deli with two partners. A few years later, he bought out his partners, and the deli would remain on that corner for decades to come.
Cohen first met Lebewohl while he was working for an electrician, and Lebewohl was looking for a bookkeeper for the deli. Cohen took that job and has now worked at the 2nd Ave Deli in various roles for 40 years. He said Lebewohl was always urging people to “do better” and “would bother you until you did the right thing.”
“He was a world-class noodge but he did it with such warmth,” Cohen said, adding, using a word referring to the Jewish way of life, “He believed very strongly in Yiddishkeit.”
Cohen said Lebewohl was always helping people. Once, he recalled, Lebewohl personally drove a 100-year-old customer to the tailor from the deli because he couldn’t get a cab. Another time he flew to England to cater a wedding so the family of the groom didn’t have to pack deli food in their suitcases. He went out of his way to deliver a Shabbat meal to an elderly woman every week, and Cohen added that there were several instances when Lebewohl told customers who came up short on their checks, “You’ll pay me next time.”
Cohen said Lebewohl’s kindness extended to his staff, too. “I broke my back and I was in the hospital for six weeks and he visited me every day and brought me food every single day,” he recalled. “I would give out the food — I had doctors coming to my room and I would say, ‘You were here yesterday, give it to another doctor.’”
Lebewohl was known for his faith and optimism in people: “He gave them his best and he expected the same in return,” Cohen said in a speech on “Abe Lebewohl Night” in 1998 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.
The deli is now under ownership of Lebewohl’s nephews, Josh and Jeremy Lebewohl. Following the move uptown, they opened a second location on the Upper East Side. It’s been 27 years since his murder and, on 33rd Street, there is still a sign in the deli’s window offering a $150,000 reward for information that will help solve the crime.
In addition to the park, Lebewohl left another lasting mark on Second Avenue: the Yiddish Theatre Walk of Fame, which he installed on the sidewalk in 1984 to honor Yiddish theater actors, playwrights and composers, including Fyvush Finkel and the Barry Sisters.
“One of the great things Abie has taught me was that you could be a success in business and still be a mensch,” Cohen said. “I attended Talmud Torah [school] for 10 years and learned more about being a good Jew and a good human being working for Abie. It certainly was more palatable.”
Lebewohl was known for sitting down with his customers and enjoying half a sandwich with them. “You thought, and rightly so, you were coming to his home to eat,” Cohen said.
That same sort of hospitality is kept alive to this day: When I arrived at the 33rd Street at the midtown location to interview Cohen, he immediately asked if I wanted a sandwich, some matzah ball soup, the works. When I declined, he turned to the deli clerk behind him and said, “Let me get some pieces of sliced pastrami and corned beef.”
Cohen said he consciously carries on Lebewohl’s way of interacting with customers. “I tell people when they start to work here; you can either be entertained by people all day or assaulted by people all day, now which one are you gonna have a better day with?” he said. “Abe always felt he was entertained by people and he wanted to entertain people.”
During our conversation, every time someone walked into the deli, Cohen greeted them like an old friend. “When people leave here and they say to me, ‘It’s exactly like I remember it,’ to me that’s the greatest compliment,” he said. That’s the way I want it. I want people to say it’s like when Abie was here. I want to carry out his legacy.”